Proteas: Bowling remedy that’s also a headache

Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)
Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - At times like this for the Proteas, an almost 41-year-old player being touted as a solution to a crisis might struggle to find favour with everyone.

But then Imran Tahir is no ordinary human ... and his unique set of wiles could enormously help the national team’s quest to put greater pressure on opposition top-order batting line-ups in Twenty20 international cricket.

The evergreen, infectiously animated “mystery” spinner is on a sabbatical of sorts from the Proteas - a period in which, by mutual agreement, they have been able to give exposure to other slow bowlers in white-ball cricket with longer-term planning in mind.

He made it clear when he stepped down from yeoman (107 caps) one-day international service after the 2019 World Cup in England that he wished to still help the SA cause, if possible, for one last time at the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year.

And why wouldn’t you want him?

Tahir can genuinely be branded a strike bowler, given his indisputable ability to outfox the most lethal of global stroke-players in white-ball cricket while simultaneously keeping a suitably tight lid on the run rate.

That is an area where the Proteas have been struggling to a special extent of late: particularly in the first six-over powerplay where they haemorrhaged runs in both surrendered, home T20 series against England and more recently Australia.

Almost unfailingly, South Africa let the opposition get off to a flier over the course of the six contests, whether their foes were batting first or second.

England notched 68/1 (East London), 55/1 (Durban) and 62/1 (Centurion), and the Aussies 70/1 (Johannesburg), 54/1 (Port Elizabeth) and a blistering, demoralising 75/0 (Cape Town).

While Tahir’s effectiveness is generally best employed just after the powerplay and with the field wider spread, he is not averse to being introduced during it - including sometimes as one of the opening bowlers, an event that occurred as recently as his second-last outing for the Proteas.

Admittedly operating against limited Zimbabwe in East London (October 2018), he shared that role with Lungi Ngidi on a day when he grabbed outstanding figures of 5/23 in a full, four-over stint.

His first three strikes all came in the powerplay, quickly leaving the neighbours’ innings in relative ruin.

With South Africa’s pace bowlers largely the recipients of the unedifying early “tap” in recent matches – though ironically their later-innings bowling has been looking considerably better in the period – Tahir is exactly the kind of spin specialist who could constructively be sneaked in for an over or two right up front, possibly with success in the wickets column which is rightly considered one of the best counters still to a rampant scoring rate.

While hugely active on the global franchise tournament circuit, Tahir has been used extremely sparingly in T20 internationals in recent times: just one appearance each for the Proteas in the calendar years of 2018 and 2019, and nothing yet this year.

But on the assumption that he is officially still deemed “available” - there have been no indicators to the contrary - he must stand an excellent chance of earning a passage to the Australian-hosted tournament in October.

In Tahir’s absence from the T20 international arena (where he boasts 63 wickets from 38 games at 15.04 and a brilliant economy rate of 6.73 into the bargain), Tabraiz Shamsi has been developing in leaps and bounds.

One of few Proteas bowlers to keep the Aussies in acceptable check during the last few days, the left-arm “chinaman” specialist is no less deserving, as things stand, of a ticket to the T20 World Cup: there’s every chance both will go.

Indeed, there might well be a justified clamour to field both in the same SA line-up at times; the Aussies fielded two spinners (Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa) throughout the triumphant series here and they were hugely influential figures in the outcome.

There is, however, one not inconsiderable snag to consider in that scenario: the Proteas’ tail-end batting order is already way too fluffy and both Tahir and Shamsi very much count as non-batsmen.

If both feature in the same team, there might be very little space left for specialist fast bowlers as a result; there would be a stronger need for at least one all-rounder, and more probably two.

But perhaps that is a bridge to cross on another day?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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